TELLURIDE (AP) – Right as the sun rises over the steep Telluride-area ridgeline and the shadow line begins to retreat across the roof of the Pandora Water Treatment Plant, nestled along the final switchbacks of Black Bear Road, local mushroom expert Scott Koch digs his hands into the nascent soil of his latest ecosystem rehabilitation project and smiles.
Koch jokingly calls himself the local mushroom man, referencing a centuries-old tradition in European hamlets where mycological knowledge is passed down from generation to generation and visitors to the area have a person to turn to for information about local mushroom varieties, what’s edible, what may be poisonous and where to hunt for nature’s healthful bounty.
Alas, that tradition never really made it across the Atlantic, and the fine art of mushroom hunting and cultivation is a lost one in most of the United States. But, for reasons unknown, Southwest Colorado has become a hub for aficionados of fungi.
In Telluride, Public Works Environmental and Engineering Division Manager Karen Guglielmone dreamed up the idea of a mushroom roof after one too many days of pulling weeds from the living roof of the local wastewater treatment plant. When the town dug completely through the layers of soil on that roof during a solar panel installation, it drove home that the ground just wasn’t healthy. There was something missing.
Enter Koch, along with 200 pounds of mushroom spawn that will eventually – hopefully – blossom into the full versions of the three varieties he planted: lion’s mane, turkey tail and king stropharia.
“This goal of this remediation project is to create soils and establish the foundations of an ecosystem so that the plants that we put up here can grow and have a really good chance.
We don’t want a big scar on the land. We want something that blends in,” he said.
His projects divert waste whenever possible, and this one is no exception.
The aspen wood chips used to increase humidity and create ideal incubation conditions for his mushrooms are a waste product from local arborist companies. He uses burlap bags from a local coffee roaster to help the little mushrooms grow.
And his base soil comes, in part, from leftover soil provided by a local marijuana grow.
The rooftop is part ecosystem remediation project and part science lab. Half of the roof – just over 2,000 square feet of space – has been constructed with care to create ideal growing conditions. The other half has been covered with the soil that tumbles down from the surrounding steep canyon walls: a concrete-like mix of rocks and earth that looks and feels devoid of nutrients. The unaltered side will serve as a control so that the town can conduct long-term monitoring at the site and, if the project thrives, replicate it elsewhere.
“I pour my heart into this kind of thing because I believe in our environment,” Koch said, adding that he sees the rooftop soil remediation project as part of a larger goal of healing the local land of mining scars and toxic heavy metal material. “As long as I’m here, I want to do something that helps better the environment of every place I live.”
The roof has also been seeded with native grasses and wildflowers, Guglielmone said, to help jumpstart getting organic matter into the soil.
“It’s wonderful to have a project where it’s so easy and it makes so much sense,” she said. “We’re always looking for these types of opportunities.”
The rooftop mushrooms, if successful, will be given space to run through their normal life cycle. They will not be available for harvesting because the water treatment plant is not open to the public – but that doesn’t necessarily preclude the lucky few water plant employees from enjoying what may be a fruitful bounty in a couple months’ time.